Building Community | Dispatches from the Antioch archives
- Published: April 5, 2023
This is the fourth in a series examining the meaning of community through the eyes of residents working to build and shape it in Yellow Springs.
What comes to mind when you think of an archivist?
Are they a niche antiquarian holed up in the fortieth floor of an impenetrable ivory tower? A basement-dwelling guardian of two-ton tomes, allergic to light and forever fearful of clumsy students mucking up their pristine materials?
Antioch College Archivist Scott Sanders is proud to say he’s none of those things — though he still takes his stewardship of the stacks quite seriously.
For nearly three decades, Sanders has welcomed scores of students, researchers, amateur historians, nostalgic villagers and even small-town journalists to join him on the second floor of the Olive Kettering Library — the site of Antioch College’s vast archives and special collections, otherwise known as Antiochiana.
“You’re not a real archive if your materials aren’t available for use,” Sanders told the News earlier this month. “The central principle I take to this job is we — that is, me and all the ‘stuff’ — are here to serve scholarship, to help people get in touch with the sources they need to do their work.”
“It’s really that simple,” he said through his classic cheshire grin. “By default, I’ve become the nominal historian of the college.”
Since he began his career at Olive Kettering Library in 1994, Sanders has overseen and maintained Antiochiana’s prodigious collection of historical artifacts — now numbering in the millions.
That means tending to his 200 second-floor shelves that brim with more than 8,000 original publications from famed Antiochians such as college founder Horace Mann and former president Arthur Morgan; hundreds of cassettes and recordings; 1 million photographs and negatives; and innumerable letters, records, diaries, research papers, periodicals, newspapers and more — most of which, when taken together, tell the story of Yellow Springs and the 173-year-old Antioch College.
Plus, there’s the collection’s oldest item: an incunabulum that a monk hand-scribed in the 1450s.
“So, that’s a lot to manage,” Sanders said. “And we’re only getting bigger. As donations come in and items are deeded to us, our collections will grow and grow.”
Antiochiana’s most recent addition came by deed from the recently deceased Kim McQuaid, a 1970 Antioch graduate and lifelong writer and history professor at Lake Erie College. Sanders said he’s spent recent weeks combing through and cataloging McQuaid’s writings on big business during the Gilded Age and on the U.S. space program.
“Isn’t that cool? Now, that’s all here,” Sanders said.
Owing to the novelty, the age and even the rarity of Sanders’ historical treasures, very little of it can leave the confines of Antiochiana and enter circulation.
“Sometimes I call myself the ‘no-you-can’t-have-it guy,” he said with a chuckle. “But you’re still welcome to come in.”
What can circulate, however, are the 180,000 books that populate the rest of the 44,000-square-foot library — that is, if you’re a card-carrying library member.
Increasingly, Sanders’ work has taken him down the stairs from Antiochiana and into the main library to take care of all those items as well. As a result of the college’s dwindling staff, the line between librarian and archivist has become blurred for Sanders.
“Often, I’m a fake librarian, I’m an overpaid desk attendant, a building manager, a janitor,” he said. “It’s just about keeping the building open and available if someone needs something. That’s what libraries do.”
Over the years, Olive Kettering’s staff has shrunk down to three full-time employees — Sanders, Library Director Emily Samborsky and Operations Specialist Erica Wyant — and a small cast of part-time student workers. When Sanders was first hired on, there were six librarians and a total of 13 staffers.
“Back then, it was a fully analog library, so we needed that many people,” he said. “It’s considerable how the library has changed over the years. I’ve seen people retire, get cut, take other jobs. Really, the whole role of the library has changed since then — and that has to do with the needs of the college.”
All these changes stem in part from the tumultuous last two decades at Antioch College. It temporarily closed in June 2008 after the board of trustees failed to resolve a growing financial deficit. At the time, 400 students were enrolled at Antioch. Then, following several years of organizing and fundraising efforts from alumni, Antioch reopened as an independent four-year college in the fall of 2011 with 35 students. Since the reopening, enrollment has fluctuated. At its height in 2015, approximately 150 students attended the college at once. Now, that number has dipped to about 120, according to Sanders.
Over those years, the college has regained its accreditation, seen three different college presidents and has undergone significant reorganization efforts that have led to expansion and reduction in various academic programs. Although staff and faculty have come and gone, Sanders has weathered it all.
“After we graduated our class in 2008, the whole place shuttered,” he said. “For the next two years, this place was abandoned … except for the library.”
Sanders said that because of third-party agreements Antioch University — the parent corporation of the college at the time — had made with organizations such as OhioLINK, a service that connects borrowers with the collections of libraries throughout the state, the board of trustees was obligated to keep Olive Kettering open.
“It was a really, really weird time. Nobody was coming into the building except for students and staff from Nonstop who still had library cards,” Sanders said, referring to the independent Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute that students and faculty formed in the wake of the closure.
“That’s how I started getting in trouble [with Antioch University],” he said. “By providing aid and comfort to ‘the enemy,’ as they saw it. All I was doing was checking out books to those who wanted them. So while I was doing my job, I was just expected to come to work. The university didn’t even care if the lights were on.”
Then, in 2009, Sanders’ time had come. His contract wasn’t renewed. Since negotiations between alumni and the university weren’t going well at the time, he was told Antiochiana would be closed indefinitely.
“Obviously, I felt like this was a monumental historic tragedy,” he said.
Things seemed bleak when Sanders became unemployed. Although he had more time to spend with his wife, Kathy, the recession made the job hunt near impossible and he anguished over the state of the college’s archives. But after only two months, Matthew Derr, Antioch College alumnus and chief transition officer for the Antioch College Continuation Corporation approached Sanders and told him to stop his job search.
“It was easy to say ‘yes,’” Sanders said. “In fact, I was the first person the alumni brought back. I was employee — no, agent double-o-one.”
The rest is history, so to speak.
Almost 12 years later, on the dreary mid-March day when Sanders spoke with the News, the library was quiet. There couldn’t have been more than five people in the whole building.
“Nowadays, we don’t have the kind of traffic we used to,” Sanders admitted. “This place used to be full of students working, meeting, doing class projects. The din was really quite something.”
Despite the ever-shifting sands at the college, Sanders said he remains committed to preserving the college’s history. As only one of four directors who have overseen Antiochiana in its hundred-year-long existence, he feels bound to the stacks by a sense of purpose.
“I see myself as having inherited a community,” he said. “I’m carrying on something that this department has done long before I ever got here — and that’s making materials available for people. It’s my purpose to serve scholarship.”
As for himself, Sanders’ daily work keeps fanning the flame of a lifelong passion for the past — one that began when he was a 12-year-old holding court in front of a crowd of adults, regaling and amazing them with a litany of facts about a cannon on the USS Constitution in Boston.
He said that, in helping his historically curious visitors, his own familiarity and intimacy with the archives has grown.
“I learn a lot about our collections when I help people find the sources they need,” Sanders said. “Even after 28 years of doing this job, I still haven’t seen everything that’s here.”
While Sanders said he doesn’t believe he’s “built community” during his time at Antioch College — recognizing that what was built precedes him by a century — he nevertheless sees himself communing and working with several groups of people, both near and far. In addition to learning alongside local residents, scholars and students, he has often facilitated the projects and endeavors of researchers and archivists far beyond the municipal limits of Yellow Springs. He’s led history tours, given convocation speeches, taught classes and more.
And by default, Sanders’ occupation necessitates that he confers with communities that are no longer around.
“There are voices that still need to be represented — I call them the retired and the dead,” he said.
This conviction — to advocate for the mute voices on his 200 shelves — extends past the walls of the college and into the village itself. Sanders said he’s been pleased to see historical names like Wheeling Gaunt and Moncure Conway getting the local recognition they deserve from villagers and visitors alike — especially during times of ebbing change.
“This town can really benefit from its history, and history can really benefit from nostalgia,” Sanders said with a wink. “I suppose the hope is that history can cut through that nostalgia with some actual facts.”
He added: “But you know, without nostalgia, I wouldn’t see half the people up here that I do.”
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